Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Plausible Antiquity of Papyrus

So much written material is lost in the normal course of business it is forgotten just how much there was originally.  The Roman Empire and the Egyptian Empire before that ran on papyrus.  It was easily made and readily available.  It just was no good for long term survival.

Beyond that, the contents of these and other ancient texts are a reminder that creation of a tool produces a culture.  If it is possible to use that tool to store information we may even end up knowing about it.

I have posted often on the Atlantean Empire which appears to have operated long before a written language was available.  This is not the problem it appears on first blush.  The Inca did quite well without and that is the point anyway.  The practical day to day problem is keeping count.  Verbal reports and orders, insignia and the like cover most other needs.  Contracts and buying and selling need a way to measure and count and this need existed in every antique society the moment it outgrew its village.

It is plausible that papyrus was used extensively to record counts and such other book keeping information as needed from well before the advent of formal writing of any kind.

This means that if the only information to be recorded was in the form of counts, then simple pictograms work nicely.  It is easy to construct a linear system that starts by naming the subject and then describing the count.  A hands hand of fishes is obvious.

Papyrus Research Provides Insight into Job Training, More in Ancient World

Released: 11/30/2011 11:00 AM EST 

Newswise — Education, jobs, religion and even the cultural effects of bilingualism were as topical in the ancient world as they are today.

All of these topics and more are featured in translations of ancient papyrus in the University of Cincinnati-based journal, “Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists,” due out Dec. 2.

The annually produced journal, edited since 2006 by Peter van Minnen, UC associate professor and head of classics, features the most prestigious global research on papyri, a field of study known as papyrology. (Papyrology is formally known as the study of texts on papyrus and other materials, mainly from ancient Egypt and mainly from the period of Greek and Roman rule.)

Below are five topics treated in the 2011 volume of the “Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.”


Chris Eckerman of the University of Oregon edits a Greek apprenticeship contract for an uncle to teach his nephew the carpentry trade in an Egyptian village. The contract dates from the time of Roman rule in Egypt, which began in 30 BC. About 50 such contracts exist from that time period in Egypt. For instance, one contract from Alexandria calls for four years of musical training for a slave. Today’s college students can probably relate.


Stephen Kidd of New York University publishes an essay on dream records in bilingual (Greek and Egyptian) papyri from the second century BC. Dreams were then regarded as messages from the gods, and it would be safe to assume that in ancient Egypt, it was the “local” gods speaking to the local population. But this was a time when there were fully bilingual people in Egypt under Greek rule. Did they dream in Egyptian or Greek? Were the gods that were speaking the local Egyptian gods or “imported” Greek gods? It would seem that Egyptian interpretations held sway. While Greeks or sufficiently Hellenized people would record their dreams in Greek, the dream interpreters were Egyptians or at least thoroughly trained in Egyptian dream interpretation, and the record shows that essential portions and word associations (puns) were provided and unraveled for meaning in Egyptian.


Albert Pietersma and Susan Comstock of the University of Toronto edit pages that, until recently, were missing from a famous early Christian papyrus codex (manuscript volume) from the fourth century AD. The codex itself has a fascinating history. It was acquired in the 1950s by the University of Mississippi with funds raised from, among others, William Faulkner. But, as things go, the university later sold the codex to a private collector in the 1980s, and it later wound up in the hands of a Norwegian shipping magnate who now owns the bulk of the codex. However, Pietersma and Comstock found missing pages from the codex in Dublin.

The codex, with its early Christian texts in Greek and Coptic, originally came from a monastery in Upper Egypt that was founded by Pachomius, an Egyptian Christian, who was the originator of the monastic way of life in which male or female monastics live together and have their possessions in common under the leadership of an abbot or abbess.

The recently found missing pages contain a Coptic prayer written by Pachomius for the annual Easter celebration. Arguably, Pachomius himself first recited this prayer at the end of the Easter service near the middle of the 4th century AD.


Ryan Boehm of the University of California, Berkeley, edits a 4th-century petition BC on papyrus, seeking justice from an administrator from Hermopolis. The petition charges an evil doer in an Egyptian village of stealing agricultural produce belonging to minors who are likely orphans.


Theodore de Bruyn and Jitse Dijkstra of the University of Ottawa publish a study of magical amulets from Egypt that contain Christian elements such as crosses and saints’ names. About 200 such texts survive from Late Antiquity (4th to 8th centuries AD), a time when the church fathers were combating the use of magical amulets by Christians. These amulets ranged from those seeking revenge and cursing opponents (for example, an insomnia curse) to those seeking healing, prosperity, success, protection and even exorcism.

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